Battling Urban Sprawl

May 30, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

LEE HOCHBERG: This piece of farmland, 463 acres for sale outside Portland, Oregon, is the type developers crave.

KELLY ROSS: This is a blank slate for what could be very wonderful new community. It’s a perfect area for development.

LEE HOCHBERG: The land is flat, says Kelly Ross of the Portland Home Builders Association. It’s close to a highway, right on the edge of an existing subdivision that’s busting at the seams for more room.

KELLY ROSS: Served by transportation, water, sewer, cities on both sides that would love to bring this piece of property in.

LEE HOCHBERG: But builders cannot develop the land. That’s because it’s just outside an invisible wall that circles Portland, called the city’s urban growth boundary. Here, the wall comes right down 209th avenue. Anything to the right, toward the city, is inside the boundary and can be developed. But anything to the left is off limits. It’s part of a statewide approach to controlling urban sprawl, and protecting farm and forest land. All across Oregon, boundary lines are drawn around populated areas. Builders have to fill vacant lots inside the boundaries, before boundaries are pushed outwards. From the air, Portland’s boundary is striking– sprawling subdivisions suddenly end, and miles of rural land begin. It was all the dream of late Oregon Governor Tom McCall, who signed into law statewide land- uses control in 1973.

TOM McCALL, Former Oregon Governor: The interests of Oregon for today and in the future must be protected from grasping wastrels of the land.

The good and the bad

SPOKESPERSON: The urban growth boundary around the Portland metropolitan area has served the region well.

LEE HOCHBERG: A quarter-century later, Oregon proudly touts the approach in videos like this as a model for other states. While the Portland area population has surged 25% in two decades, its developed land has increased only 2%. Compare that with Chicago, where with only a tiny population increase, the amount of developed land there has ballooned by 50%. Oregon farmers, especially, seem to have benefited. For three generations, the Vanderzandaen family has grown grass, peas, and corn on these 1,250 acres 15 miles from Portland, just outside the growth boundary. Land they used to farm for people inside the boundary has been chewed up by suburbs.

BOB VANDERZANDEN, Farmer: There’s probably 350 or 400 acres that we farm that are now under houses and schools and streets and factories and ship factories and chemical companies and everything.

LEE HOCHBERG: The Vanderzandaen property, and other plots just outside the boundary, are still farms. The Portland area farm economy generates $500 million in sales a year. And 86% of the state’s top agricultural commodity, nursery products, are grown in Portland’s metro area.

BOB VANDERZANDEN: We would not be farming here if it weren’t for that boundary. The growth would have just kept coming out.

LEE HOCHBERG: There are payoffs inside the boundary, as well. Forced to look there for opportunities, developers have turned empty warehouses into loft apartments and retail outlets. Old Portland neighborhoods buzz with refurbished shops and galleries. Counties have saved millions, that otherwise might have been spent extending roads into sprawling suburbs. But there’s a flip side: Portland is going through an unprecedented economic boom, and it’s struggling with how to squeeze 15,000 newcomers a year inside its self-imposed boundary.

JERRY JOHNSON, Land Use Consultant: We’re starting to realize, although we tout it nationally as we’ve, you know, developed a panacea for ills, we have problems and tradeoffs in Portland.

LEE HOCHBERG: Jerry Johnson advises developers on land use laws. He says the boundary is choking Portland. Traffic congestion is as bad as New York City’s. Though the boundary has been expanded some, Johnson claims it’s a sacred cow among Portland’s slow growth leadership and is nearly impossible to move.

JERRY JOHNSON: We can’t move it. I believe they’ve lost the ability to move it. Politically it’s too much of a hot potato.

LEE HOCHBERG: Increased urban densities are unpopular in neighborhoods used to having elbow room. New single family lots are half the size they were 20 years ago. Builders complain average new developments are only 19 lots, compared to 100 nationally. That drives up costs. And they say constraints on land have pushed land prices up 400% in seven years.

KELLY ROSS: The Portland region has gone from one of the most affordable housing markets in the country, to one of the least affordable. We’re seeing home ownership decrease in the Portland region, at a time when it’s increasing the rest of the nation.

DEMONSTRATORS: Two, four, six, eight. Save our homes, it’s not too late.

LEE HOCHBERG: Rents are going up, too, prompting citizen protests. Homeless advocates say the number of low-income apartments in downtown Portland has dropped by one-third in five years.

DEMONSTRATOR: It is ridiculous that during this period of Portland’s economic boom, there are more people than ever who are living in the streets, in their cars, or on a relative’s couch.

Serving a population

LEE HOCHBERG: Melissa Baker ended up in a shelter after the rent on her downtown apartment jumped from $395 to $475. The 23-year-old single mother is struggling to locate housing she can afford.

MELISSA BAKER: With the rent increase, it was just too much for me to handle. You have to be basically working for an airline, or a lawyer, to move into one of these places now.

LEE HOCHBERG: And the inner-city infrastructure upon which low- income people like Baker depend, doesn’t exist in the older suburbs to which they’re moving. Critics say planners should’ve anticipated that when they put the boundary into place.

JERRY JOHNSON: The huge problem is how do you serve this population? They’re no longer concentrated, they’re very difficult to serve. And, you know, they don’t line up very well for transit now, in a ring around the metropolitan area that’s roughly three miles out of the center.

LEE HOCHBERG: But policy analysts say it’s unfair to blame all of the price increases on the growth boundary. Ethan Seltzer directs Portland state university’s institute of Portland metropolitan studies.

ETHAN SELTZER, Land Use Analyst: The price increases that we’ve seen here have not been out of bounds, compared to price increases that have been seen in places like salt lake city. The growth across the west has been affecting prices dramatically in every metropolitan area.

LEE HOCHBERG: And political leaders accuse developers of demagoguing the issue to erode support for the boundary. Mike Burton heads the Portland- area regional government. He says there are still 35,000 vacant acres inside the boundary– enough for a 20-year supply of new homes– but they’re just not the most profitable parcels for builders to build upon.

MIKE BURTON, Portland Area Regional Government: Those folks have built subdivisions and malls, and want to do them easy, cheap, and they’re trying to make as much money right now as they possibly can before the market begins to flatten out.

LEE HOCHBERG: Faced with the booming economy and the boundary, political leaders are looking for ways to maintain the area’s noted livability. The government of suburban Washington county now requires the giant chip-maker Intel, the state’s large manufacturer and an employer of 11,000 in the county alone, to pay a fee if it hires too many employees. For every manufacturing job beyond 5,000 it adds in the next 15 years, it will owe the county $1,000. County chairman Tom Brian.

TOM BRIAN, Washington County Chairman: It’s not jobs at any price. You know, we want to encourage business, we’ve very pro- business, we’re just also pro- balance, pro-quality of life. And that’s really the message.

LEE HOCHBERG: Critics blame the growth boundary for prompting such disincentives to hiring, at a time when Portland still has a 4% unemployment rate.

JERRY JOHNSON: So we sort of get these perverse incentives for an employer not to hire people, which is actually what best serves the metropolitan area.

LEE HOCHBERG: For all of its unintended results, Oregon leaders say the boundary’s opponents haven’t come up with anything better to keep sprawl out of the state’s cherished countryside.

ETHAN SELTZER: What these guys are doing, essentially, is trying to maintain the status quo of “let ‘er rip” development. And “let ‘er rip” development is not serving the needs that communities today have.

MIKE BURTON, Portland Area Regional Government: Look at places that are now having booms, like Colorado, where they’re all… You know, the sprawl issue in Colorado/Denver area has businesses announcing to the government, “we may move,” as they did in Atlanta, “because the quality of life here isn’t any good.” And here, we have businesses paying to stay.

LEE HOCHBERG: Such viewpoints are likely to be front and center, as growth issues play a role in national as well as state and local elections this fall.